Saturday, February 27, 2016

How the Internet fights Providence

Having grown up without the Internet, I am often fascinated, not to mention dismayed, by the ways in which the Internet has changed the very concept of friendship. In this post, years ago, I discussed the way in which the "talkie" nature of the Internet makes friendship difficult. (See also here and here.) It used to be that friendship was based on more than just talking and indeed, often was based on not talking--on restraint, on leaving disagreements unmentioned, on focusing on what people had in common. In the blogosphere, we don't get together to bowl, sing, play softball, build something, eat, or run a small, local organization. We aren't doing most of the things that communities and incarnate friendships used to be based on.

Did I really want to know, in the old days, everything that my friends thought about every intellectual, political, and moral issue under the sun? Maybe when I was about twenty years old I thought I did, but deep in my heart I valued some ideological privacy and restraint on both sides. In the blogosphere, we have nothing to do but talk about what we think about everything, and what friendship can withstand that? Sometimes the blogosphere is like something out of Sartre--being stuck in an elevator with people talking forever. Of course you end up, often as not, very nearly hating each other!

But there is more: In the pre-Internet days, there was a largely unspoken notion that God "brings people into your life" and that you had some kind of duty to people just in virtue of having fallen into contact with each other. I don't know how secular people thought of this. Maybe they just let the word "community" cover it. But the idea was there for religious and non-religious alike. The fact that you just happened to work with somebody, just happened to be in the same church or neighborhood, conferred a duty to get along with each other. That, at a minimum. And over time, to develop a kind of affection of familiarity and maybe even a close friendship. One's "own folk" were to some degree chosen by chance. Even going to college had this same quality. Whom will I get as a roommate? Who will be in choir or band with me? By such chance events, or such acts of Providence (however you look at it), many of the decisions of a lifetime were made--one's spouse, sometimes one's lifelong friends, were all selected to some degree by the accidents of propinquity. And one did not lightly throw that out the window. Jones, my neighbor, might be an annoying old buffer, but after all he is part of my community, and I'm supposed to try to get along with him.

So there was a kind of loyalty that was owed to people whom one did not, or did not entirely, choose to associate with in the first instance.

The Internet makes it, I say, flatly impossible to keep on adhering to that same notion of automatic loyalty owed to those one happens to fall in with by chance. A major reason for this impossibility is that, if one includes electronic accidents of association, there are just too darned many people who fall into this category. Obviously one can't feel loyalty and a duty of friendship to every fellow commentator who hangs out at the same blog or Facebook page, including the trolls one wishes would disappear! But it's true even of the people one develops somewhat more of a friendship with on the Internet. There are now too many of them, and the friendships thus formed have too narrow and discarnate a basis (see above) for one to maintain the same sense of a duty to keep the friendship going permanently (if at all possible) or for one to allow oneself to feel the same anguish when something goes awry that one would have felt in the old days about the loss of an in-person friendship.

Worse, fallings-out on the Internet have a way of being far more nuclear than any in-person fight over the same issues would usually be. One is far more likely to find people berating each other repeatedly for alleged dishonesty, misrepresentation, disingenuousness, and so forth, in an Internet war than one would in an in-person disagreement. (And that's at the best. That's when the people involved are sufficiently decent not to descend to threats or obscenities.)

If there is an incarnate basis for the friendship, one has both more resources for working things out and avoiding conflict and also more reason to do so. If Jones has a "thing" about tariffs, he and I don't talk about tariffs once we realize that we don't agree. And if Jones and I are on the same neighborhood watch committee, I can't just drop him and walk away, nor can he just drop me and walk away. We'll be seeing each other for years willy-nilly (if we're mature people and don't drop the neighborhood watch over a political disagreement), so we both have a motive for finding a modus vivendi.

In contrast, it's relatively cheap and easy to drop an Internet friendship without a backward look when something goes badly wrong, and one is often well-advised to do so. One has one's family and other duties in life; one can't go around agonizing over every highly unpleasant falling-out on Facebook or in a blog thread.  It feels wrong to take that attitude, but it is often not only right but necessary. Let it go. Don't go back and read what so-and-so said as the last word. Don't send that e-mail. Don't worry about it. Move on. It's a freeing feeling to do that, like getting over an addiction. But those of us who have any gift for friendship also feel, to some extent, guilty about the sense of freedom itself. One finds oneself asking, "Since when am I the kind of person who wakes up in the morning and breathes a sigh of relief that I don't have to worry about 'dealing' with someone anymore, when I previously thought of that person as a friend? Do I not have a duty to be more bothered about this, to try to find a way of fixing it?" Yet on the contrary, one may well have the very opposite duty.

The Internet gives us the interpersonal equivalent of battle fatigue. Just as a doctor must get used to the sight of blood and a soldier in a war zone must get used to the experience of death, just as they must harden themselves to some degree in order to remain sane and carry on, the Internet user must to some degree harden himself to the blow-ups, harsh words, and losses of e-friendship that will inevitably occur. More inevitably, more harshly, more frequently, and often more irrevocably than used to be the case, pre-Internet.

This is a loss. There is no getting around it. It's a blow to our humanity. One can no longer invest each and every human interaction with the significance one previously could. The hardening of the human emotions, inuring oneself to things that are objectively sad, is always a loss, even when necessary.

So it comes to this: I am forced to admit that technology changes us in ways that its inventors could never have foreseen, in ways that no one planned. There was no conspiracy when e-mail was invented, then listserves, then blogs, then Facebook, to make people talk too much, to make them give in to their tempers too frequently, both to create and to destroy larger numbers of friendships, faster, than could have been dreamed of in the years before instant global communication. But that's where we are. It has happened. It's all very well, and in one sense true, to say, "Communication technology is a tool. It's only as good or as bad as the people using it." But in another sense that saying is a bit shallow. For different technologies, sometimes by pure accident, tap into different aspects of human nature--good and bad. The Internet has made us more cranky but perhaps also more generous. Facebook certainly makes me aware of more people's prayer requests. And fund-raising for those in need has never been easier. It's all a big mixed bag.

But one quiet loss that I would mourn, so that the loss will not occur unnoticed and unrecorded, is the loss of the stubborn friendship--the friendship that is the result of Providence and is kept in obedience to Providence, the friendship that tries many ways to maintain itself, the friendship of restraint and loyalty. I will not say that such a friendship can be maintained only in person, by the affection generated and exchanged via voice, facial expressions, handshakes, warmth, shared activities. But I would come close to saying that.

So we try to walk the fine line between being hypersensitive and emotional and being cold and cynical. We pray for wisdom. And we try to cultivate those few friendships with those we have never met, on, perhaps, the old "pen pal" model, that will last a good, long time, that will be broken up by death just temporarily, to be reinstated in and for eternity.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Seeing the forest

In the on-going thread on the reliability of the gospels, I wrote something about New Testament studies that I think should be highlighted elsewhere. (To be honest, I've written a lot of such things in that thread, but this is the one I'm grabbing right now to put into an independent post.)

I think a big part of the problem is that New Testament studies as it is often taught has a classic problem of being unable to see the forest for the trees. It focuses on supposed "Difficulties." Two problems with this are a) that the supposed difficulties are often exaggerated or even, properly speaking, not difficulties at all, and b) that they are not set in the context of the many confirmations of the gospels (and Acts, even more so), even on matters of detail.

The student thus comes away with the notion that Difficulties, which is to say "problems that call into question the ordinary-sense reliability of the gospels" are the rule rather than the exception, that they are typical and that confirmations are atypical. The student/scholar thus comes to have the uneasy feeling that he must redefine reliability, come up with some fancy literary theory, or "do" something else, in order to "deal with" these supposed many, many difficulties, because the difficulties allegedly make it just impossible for a Real Scholar to take the gospels to be reliable in an unhyphenated, un-asterisked sense.

I think this is a distortion.

In contrast, I want to recommend the attitude shown in a particular case by the late Colin Hemer concerning Luke, the author of both Luke and Acts. Hemer is discussing a crux in Acts concerning the allusion to Theudas by Gamaliel. He says something to the effect that, even if we cannot with confidence identify what "Theudas" Gamaliel is talking about, given all the other reason we have to trust the author of Acts as a careful historian, we should not be hasty to attribute an error to him at this point just because we don't know who this Theudas was. (I'm paraphrasing, of course.)

Mention the reliability of Luke to nine seminary-educated people out of ten, even conservatives, and like clockwork you'll immediately hear, with great solemnity, about the difficulty placing the census in Luke 2 in relation to secular history and the difficulty placing Paul's journeys, recounted in Galatians, with confidence into the events in the book of Acts!

One gets the distinct impression that such students and scholars have been led to believe that the prima facie case is that Luke is an unreliable author. But this is astonishingly incorrect. On the contrary, there are so many places where we can minutely connect the epistles with Acts and confirm Luke's connection to secular history in detail, that it is the "difficulties" that are the outliers. So strongly is this the case that, as with the case of Theudas discussed by Hemer, the difficulty in being sure exactly how the census in Luke 2 fits into secular history is a place where we are fully justified in concluding that, while it is possible that Luke made a rare error (especially rare for him), one historical explanation or another, consistent with what Luke says, is very likely correct even if we don't know which one.

Look, ma, no literary theory required.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

So many words

In the wake of the death of the great Justice Antonin Scalia, the Internet guarantees that there are many words. That is what the Internet provides--words. There are the evil words of those who hated him, spewing across the Twitter feed. There are the tributes with quotations of his own words, one of which I hope we will write soon at What's Wrong With the World. There are the free-standing quotations on Facebook, reminding us just how eloquent, profound, and pithy he was, how much he could say in how short a space. And then there are the debates about how to appoint his successor.

Since the great man's own vocation was one of words, it is fitting that he should be memorialized by bringing what he said and wrote to our minds. Since he loved the Constitution, it is fitting that those who also love it should discuss its implications (one way and another) for appointing his successor in an election year, or waiting until a new President is inaugurated.

At the same time, there is something within me, remembering the days and the years before the Internet, that rebels just a little at so many words. Sometimes it seems as though, in the avalanche of words in which we now live, we cannot concentrate on just one word--one quotation, one thing that epitomized the man, one speaking action, one human word eternally stamped upon the face of reality.

I am ambivalent about the tendency to make every important event about oneself. Where were you when the Challenger shuttle went down? Do you remember the moment you learned about 9/11? Did you ever get to meet ______? Such ways of framing events personalize the great happenings of this world, show children that history lives, and demonstrate the connections among men. At the same time, there is a whiff of narcissism about them, about reducing everything to me, me, me. So I hesitate to mention that I did, one time, have the great privilege of shaking Justice Scalia's hand. It was only a moment at a Federalist Society dinner at which he was speaking--a high point of my earthly pilgrimage. There was no long conversation. Indeed, I myself mostly stammered, having hoped for such a meeting for over a decade and, when it came to it, finding no words to say. I bring it up here only because it allows me to focus on just a few words. I remember that someone mentioned Justice Rehnquist, who was then ill. In the most natural way possible, with complete sincerity, Antonin Scalia said something like, "Pray for him. He needs it." He focused on those of us gathered round, yet he deftly and deprecatingly deflected our praise directed toward himself. He did not ask if we were Christians and would pray. He assumed it. His thought was for his sick colleague.

The greatness of Antonin Scalia lay in the fact that he was an aristocrat who lived to defend democracy. He did so because he believed that was right. That was his vocation. Thrust by the perversions of the Supreme Court and of the role of the federal government into the unwanted role of unelected oligarch in the United States, Scalia bore his burden of power with good humor, Christian humility, a touch of wryness, and unswerving integrity.

The truth of who Antonin Scalia was came out even in that moment greeting fans at a Federalist Society dinner. It came out, too, in this unbearably touching incident recounted by the libertarian pundit Jeffrey Tucker, at the time a silent, unsuspected eyewitness.

So if you admired Justice Scalia and are mourning his passing, do not feel that you have to read all of the words. Not just now, anyway. You may, instead, pick one word and focus on that, and let your meditation on it draw your mind to the God whom he served unto the end, Lord alike of the living and of the dead.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

We shall not see his like again

 How sleep the Brave
HOW sleep the brave, who sink to rest
By all their country's wishes blest!
When Spring, with dewy fingers cold,
Returns to deck their hallow'd mould,
She there shall dress a sweeter sod        
Than Fancy's feet have ever trod.

There Honour comes, a pilgrim grey,
To bless the turf that wraps their clay;  
And Freedom shall awhile repair
To dwell, a weeping hermit, there!

Antonin Scalia, rest in peace

See also here.

Discussion continues concerning gospel harmonization and fictionalization

My blogging time has been dominated lately by discussions generated from my post here on Mike Licona's approach to gospel difficulties. The blog thread discussion there continues and contains a huge amount of relevant material, especially in my exchanges with commentator Christopher McCartney. I strongly encourage readers interested in the subject to read those exchanges.

Meanwhile, at Triablogue, I have had interesting exchanges on the same subject in this thread and this thread.

Whatever else may come of the controversy, one good thing has been that Steve Hays has drawn my attention to (without necessarily endorsing) this article by John Warwick Montgomery. It looks like it is from 1999. I had not read it before. Montgomery, though writing in terms of inerrancy which I would not necessarily adopt, makes excellent points against the neo-inerrantists of that time. Apparently the stylish thing then in attempting to integrate redaction criticism with conservative biblical scholarship was this: Take some theological truth. Say that a later redactor added it to Jesus' words and that Jesus didn't really utter it. (For example, the Trinitarian formula in the Great Commission.) Then say that this is a version of inerrancy because the Holy Spirit guided the redactor only to attribute truths rather than falsehoods to Jesus! The small fact that the claim that Jesus said these words would be a falsehood in the biblical account seems to have been of no account to these theorists.

Montgomery is nearly tearing his hair out in the article (in a scholarly sense of "tearing his hair out") trying to deal with the illogic and poor reasoning of those making these claims, and reading him was like a breath of fresh air to me just now. It rocks. Go read it.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

New Post at W4 on Licona and gospel discrepancies

I have a long post just up at What's Wrong With the World on Mike Licona's approach in his forthcoming book to Gospel discrepancies. (I'm agin' it.) I was able to use a long lecture of his that lays out the approach, so I have plenty of material even though the book is not out yet. Comments can be left here or at W4.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Interview on Songtime

Host Adam Miller interviewed me on Songtime, a northeastern radio broadcast, last week on the "same God" debate. He had read my article on the Gospel Coalition web site on the subject.

The interview took about twenty-five minutes, and portions of it are found from about minute three of the broadcast here and again beginning at about minute sixteen. At the end of the second segment the host says that the interview in its entirety is on the web site, but I confess I haven't yet figured out how to find the recording of the entire interview. I think the segments included in the broadcast turned out well.

I've redirected comments here from W4, due chiefly to the brief discussion of dual covenant theology and whether the Jews worship the same God. This is because of some of the problems we have been having lately with anti-semitic commenters both here and at W4. Comments at Extra Thoughts are pretty strictly moderated.